The Terrible Tragic Tale of Helena Blunden, 1896-1912
'Gentle reader, help us solve the mystery of Helena Blunden - we are convinced the truth is in here.'
Helena Blunden was 16 years of age when she started her job in the spinning room of the linen mill of Belfast's old markets area. The older daughter of a Tyrone woman and a Kilkenny man, She had been born in Ireland but brought up in England.
In 1911, the Blunden Family returned to Ireland and settled in Belfast at a time when the Parliament in Westminster seemed likely to placate one group of Irish politicians only to provoke the wrath of another. With the reform of the House of Lords in 1911, the Lords' power of veto over Home Rule was limited to a delaying tactic. The passage of a Home Rule Bill through Westminster was assured, which would grant Ireland a domestic parliament and allow a degree of political independence from England. Anyway, an ardent Home Ruler, Helena's father would have preferred to settle in Dublin but Helena's uncles on her mother's side had already arranged jobs for the Blundens in Belfast. They moved into a small terraced house in Raphael Street about a few hundred yards from the linen mill.
Helena was a diligent, popular worker in the linen mill. A loud, cheerful young woman, her head was full of the romanticism of Yeats' poetry, the wit of Shaw's plays and the raucous songs of the London music halls. Her grand uncle had been a wandering Irish dancing master in Kilkenny. Helena had inherited this talent for dance, but she was more interested in singing. When she was younger, she had sung in a school choir in England. Since returning to Ireland she had danced at Feiseanna, Dublin. Her father encouraged her aspirations to the stage but Helena's mother frowned upon the notion. Helena had grown up among the immigrant Irish in London but invented a peculiar English accent which impressed her fellow workers. Her aspirations and songs, her accent and memories of London always guaranteed her a captivated audience and she enjoyed this attention.
Work in the spinning room was arduous and repetitive. On warm days in summer when it was hot, children and women often fainted. The atmosphere was always so damp, condensation settled on the walls and floors of the mill. Margaret Maxwell was a tough woman who, in her youth, had brawled with men and women in the street. No longer fit to fight or work in the flax room, Margaret was employed in the afternoons to mop and clean the condensation from the stairs. Pride made her resent the work but necessity made her stay. She was content to complain fiercely and scold anyone who dared to walk on the stairs while she mopped. The young children were scared of Margaret, but the adults only scorned her threats. She clashed often with Helena, deriding the young woman's songs and hope.
Helena worked 60 hours a week. On Saturday the working day was supposed to finish at 12 noon, but the workers always stayed late if an important order needed to be prepared. The linen company's first order had been to produce double damask linen tablecloths. These tablecloths were on the tables in the first class dining room on the Titanic.
The new company sometimes brought the workers in on Sundays to ensure orders were ready on time. On Sunday 14 April 1912, the workers, including the half-timers in all departments, came in to finish an order for Argentina. Helena had a concert she was to go to in the Grand Opera house that evening. At 2 pm, Helena realised that her work would not be complete by 6 pm and that there would be hardly any time between finishing in the mill and going to the concert. She kept those special occasion shoes on all day, ready to leave the minute her work was completed.
Margaret was tired before she even began. She stooped over the mop and half heartedly dabbled it along the top flight. She stopped to chastise a young half-timer who had only started and had not been warned about Margaret's stairs.
At 7 pm, Helena was finished. Already exhausted by excitement, heat and fasting, Helena tripped on the discarded mop, fell over the banister and down to the ground floor. Margaret heard the shrieking, screeching, screaming Helena and looked up to watch Helena falling. Margaret let go of the young boy and staggered down to the ground floor to discover that it was too late.
Helena was dead.
Helena's intention had been to leave the linen mill forever and become a singer. Of course she may never have succeeded and may have been destined to stay in the spinning room for years, reminiscing singing on stage. Her young early death dashed those aspirations. There are reasonable, sensible people who believe that Helena still walks in that building.
Sorry for those expecting the second in the OOBE&NDE (Out of Body experiences and Near death Encounters) Series, this will return next week where we will be covering Out of body experiences.
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